Stepping foot inside a nutrition center can be a humbling experience. It’s truly shocking – even with all the advancements we have made in this modern age, there are still children facing imminent death from hunger. In Kenya alone, more than half a million children under five years old are in need of treatment for acute malnutrition.
In all my years as an aid worker, the hardest part of my job remains witnessing a child suffering from severe acute malnutrition. We can save the vast majority of children through intensive treatment, but in that moment, all you can see is children in desperate need. But when I see the center’s community health workers in action, I am filled with renewed motivation.
Often, community health workers are mothers who have themselves experienced some of the worst hardships you can imagine. Yet, they commit their time and compassion to help their neighbors and transform their communities. Their energy is palpable – it never fails to turn my feelings of despair into hope and renewed motivation.
Frequently, it’s amidst humanitarian crises that we first meet the women who will later become community health workers. She might be a mother whose child was treated in an Action Against Hunger nutrition center. Or, she might be a woman in a refugee settlement who learned about healthy hygiene from our staff, or a woman in a village where our team installed new latrines and drilled a well. As these women and their families grow stronger and healthier, many return to Action Against Hunger to ask how they can gain more skills to help others.
First-hand exposure with the suffering and burden of acute malnutrition positions community health workers to help their fellow mothers overcome this challenge and prevent others from experiencing the same struggle. With their expertise, local knowledge, and commitment, these women are the backbone of the health care system of the future, even in fragile contexts.
In rural areas and conflict zones, reaching communities in need remains one of our toughest challenges. That’s why community health workers, who live in the areas where they work, are so important.
As Magdalena, a community health worker and member of the Turkana tribe in Kenya, explains: "We live in a remote area, where walking distances are enormous. When a child gets sick, many mothers wait until it is too late. Education and treatment, the two things go together. The best solution is to go to the homes, to speak directly to people, so they understand how to improve their health.”
While engines in four-wheel drive vehicles might fail, the drive of community health workers never does. In Kenya, the average community health worker in a rural district covers an area of about ten miles, often on foot, bringing primary health services to people far out of reach from traditional health systems.
The change these women create in their communities – and in themselves – is remarkable. In many villages where community health workers operate, we see more children referred to health centers; oftentimes, these children would have gone untreated. And beyond the benefits they provide to others, we see women community health workers finding pride in their work, raising their voices, and becoming empowered in their households and broader communities.
Often, we see their esteem grow within their communities, which inspires them to find their voice and challenge the status quo to improve their own family life. For example, they might press their male partners to maximize their family income in ways that benefit the health and wellbeing of their children.
With their new skills, community health workers also increase their engagement in other spheres of life, including at the political level. More women are taking on bigger local leadership roles: We have seen some work with their village councils to improve access to safe water, others lead efforts to improve infrastructure and access to markets, and still others who advocate to ensure the needs of women and children are reflected in community plans and priorities. When they realize they have the power to transform the lives of everyone around them, a new world of possibilities opens up for these women.
These days, whenever I walk into a health center, I look to the community health workers first – for inspiration, for motivation, and for proof that change is not only possible, it’s happening right now. Today, on International Women’s Day, I hope you’ll join me in honoring women like Magdalena, who are leading the fight against hunger and who are examples to us all.